If you look at some of the breakdowns in leadership, whether in your company or even our country, you might be asking yourself: “What is missing?” Over the last decade of coaching executives, I have witnessed one core trait that sets high performing leaders apart from the rest – they come from curiosity.
What exactly does it mean to be curious?
One of the most effective tools I use and develop in others to stay curious is understanding story vs. fact. Unfortunately, we exist in a society where even facts are difficult to trust, but in this particular context, I’m distinguishing between what actually happened (the event) and the interpretation our minds make up about it.
Our brains are designed for one thing and one thing only: to keep us alive. And one way it has us survive, is by creating stories, which function as protection mechanisms to prevent us from experiencing further physical or emotional harm. This usually happens beyond our awareness, in our subconscious. The example I share the most with my clients is how, for decades, I held tight to the story that my alcoholic father didn’t love me because he didn’t stop drinking when I cut him out of my life.
That story, which manifested as anger and resentment, protected me from giving my heart out to men in my life. But it came at a great cost: I never got to fully experience love, from anyone, including myself. When I got curious about alternative perspectives, I was able to see my father as a man who was hurting and sick, and that his addiction was not reflective of his love for me. I was able to have compassion and forgiveness for him as well as myself. The stories our brain creates generally, by default, are negative ones (this is a psychological phenomenon called negative bias). The purpose of these stories is to protect us, because if we expect the worst, our brain thinks we can be prepared and safe. This comes at a great cost though, getting in the way of being curious, having healthy relationships and connected communities. So the first step toward being curious requires increased self-awareness of this phenomenon.
As an example, imagine you are sitting across from a colleague. You share something about yourself and your colleague makes a face in disgust. What kind of negative stories might your brain make up about this interaction?
- “She doesn’t like me.”
- “She is rude.”
- “I’m disgusting.”
- “I can’t make friends.”
- “Something is wrong with me.”
- “I can’t trust this person.”
The list could continue. When your brain makes this interpretation, how would you react? You may walk away hurt and avoid your colleague. You might get angry and respond sarcastically, “Thanks a lot. I won’t share anything with you anymore.” You might silently write them off as a jerk and start sharing your story (gossiping about them).
Now, what if I told you that right at the moment you share about yourself, this person smelled something from the kitchen that was disgusting to them? For me, that would be cooked broccoli. What if I told you that their face of disgust was actually more of a grimace because they had a stomach ache? Or they realized they left food on their desk over the weekend? Most likely, your interpretation of the interaction would change. You wouldn’t feel hurt, angry, or rejected.
Rarely do we pause and consider a different story from the first one in our head. Rarely do we choose to consider a positive interpretation. Often we are interacting with others from our story, which we tend to hold as ‘fact’, when really it is merely one of many possible interpretations.
If you came from curiosity in this previous example, how do you think you may interact differently? You might ask yourself “Hmm, that is not a reaction I was hoping for, I wonder what that is about?” You might actually ask the other person: “I just shared something about myself and noticed you had a reaction. Can you share with me what is going on?” Perhaps they were reactivating negatively to what you said, but at least now you can courageously engage in an open conversation with this person.
Curiosity is about giving up the story we tell ourselves and asking questions so we can gather more data and connect with another person. Curiosity is collaborative, not reactive. Curiosity is empathetic instead of blaming. Curiosity is inviting rather than righteous.
A note: it is challenging to be curious when emotions run high. When we are triggered, it is important to give ourselves a safe emotional outlet and the space to clear our mind before engaging in a conversation. Curiosity is most effective when we come from a grounded place.
How curiosity can change your organization, your life, and the world.
The recent political and social climate has magnified the obvious lack of curiosity in our interactions. We are resorting to pointing fingers, righteous rage, and preconceived notions. It doesn’t matter which side of the party line you may place yourself, the mere fact that we remain divided is evidence enough that we are not practicing enough curiosity.
What if, instead of labeling someone as a certain way due to their beliefs, we asked more questions about why they have those beliefs?
What if, instead of assuming mal intent when someone comments on our social media post, we ask them to share more about how they came to their views? Or even better, invite them to a 1:1 conversation to reconnect and explore their thinking.
What if, instead of reacting to someone’s anger or poor behavior toward us, we inquire into what is going on for them and listen intently before reacting?
How might curiosity impact your relationships? Would your marriage or partnership be more peaceful? Would you feel more connected to your colleagues?
Time and time again, when I coach executives and business owners on curiosity, they report feeling more peace, love, and connection. Their employees trust them because they have been open and vulnerable. Conflicts are resolved faster and with minimal damage to relationships. Morale is higher as teams interact with vulnerability, empathy and creativity. Studies show that curiosity is a crucial ingredient of innovation (Hardy et al, 2017).
How do you bring more curiosity into your life and career?
Curiosity is a simple practice:
- When a challenge arises, take a step back from the situation. Take a brief moment to write down what happened and what meaning you’re making up about it.
- Assume positive intent, and then ask them what they mean by what they said, e.g., “Can you tell me more about that?”
- Actively, authentically listen to the other person from the intention of really understanding their perspective (NOT from a place of defense, waiting to prove the other person wrong).
Curiosity can be used when we feel emotionally triggered, have an urge to judge, or in a communication conflict. Although our problems may seem intractable, they all have the same elements: 2 or more parties who care about the same thing, and who need to be heard and valued in order to trust and collaborate with people with whom they disagree. Curiosity is how we show others we’ve heard them, that we value their perspective and care enough to respond.
When we take this different approach, we get closer to understanding the source of the problem so we can find more effective solutions. In doing so, we connect around shared commitments, and see the values underneath our views. With curiosity we can get to the heart of what matters and how to find common ground.
This week, I invite you to pick a relationship that needs work and bring curiosity to it. You’ll be surprised what happens. You might learn something. You might deepen a friendship. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it may just help you (and humanity).
Written by: Stephanie Staidle
Stephanie Staidle, founder of The Right Brain Entrepreneur, is a licensed art therapist and ‘rapid results’ leadership and business coach. She helps individuals create positive social impact in careers they love, and propels companies toward the inspiration and change they need to activate sustainable and accelerated growth. For her on-site workshops and worldwide professional coaching, Stephanie uses neuroscience-based, cutting-edge techniques to help her clients access an underused resource called “right brain thinking”. With 18 years of experience in psychology, she inspires individuals to tap into their innate potential to be confident and effective leaders whether it is as the CEO of an impact driven organization, as a purpose-driven entrepreneur, or a budding innovator with a dream. Stephanie has been widely recognized for her unique methodology; she’s been a featured expert on ABC, CBS, NBC, Tedx, and SXSW. Some of Stephanie’s clients are executives at AT&T, Google, Morgan Stanley, Nasdaq, Veritas, LinkedIn and American Express.